Lee Bom-son was born in 1920 in what is now communist
North Korea. His short stories, "People in Hak Village" and "A Misfired
Shot" brought him much critical acclaim as well as popularity. When he
published "A Misfired Shot" he was a teacher at a church-affiliated high
school in Seoul. After the story was published he was fired from the school
because the school authorities regarded the main character's monologue,
"Man is God's misfired shot" as an affront to christianity. His forceful
and realistic depiction of the Korean suffering from the post-World War
II division of the country, the Korean War and its aftermath is what made
his short stories, especially "A Misfired Shot", such great successes.
The main character in "A Misfired Shot", Mr. Song, is a representative
of many Korean intellectuals who were as bewildered and frustrated as he.
The so-called Liberty Village in Seoul was a ghetto of
North Korean refugees who fled to the south after World War II. They were
a group of people with the same accent and customs, huddled together in
one area, within the alien milieu of South Korea. During the Korean War,
they suffered more than the rest of the population. Lee Bom Son's Song
is a representative of these people, educated but poor and alienated. The
despair of the Korean people, that they were merely stray bullets in this
universe, is the subject matter of this story. However, poverty, alienation,
and hopelessness are universal human conditions of any dispossessed people.
A Misfired Shot
Chul Ho Song, a clerk in an accountant's office, sat at
his desk long after the closing hour, not because he had any extra work
to do but because he couldn't think of anything else to do. It was more
than an hour since he put his book away. His office mates had left when
the clock had barely reached five o'clock. He was hungry and tired after
an eight-hour lunchless day.
"Mr. Song, aren't you going home?"
The janitor boy's question, which sounded more like a
request, aroused him from his stupor. He was wearing worn-out Navy fatigue
clothes keeping his hands in their two baggy pockets.
"Well, I must go, mustn't I?" he said in a yawn.
The boy started to sweep from the far corner and dust
rushed toward him. He raised himself and went to the other side of the
office. He poured water from a bucket into a basin and put his right hand
in the water. The water was cool. He looked down at the soybean size blister
on his pen-harassed middle finger from which, he noticed, a thin thread
of blue ink was slowly uncoiling. The tiny blue current spread like smoke
and turned the water blue like the transparent autumn sky.
"Blood, it is blood," he mumbled to himself gazing at
the chilly blue water deepening in the color. He cautiously withdrew his
hand from the basin. Then he saw a face in the round mirror of the water.
The face was smiling a smile bitter and distorted; forehead covered with
long unruly hair, two dark sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, and a sharply edged
chin. It was a face dull and scrawny like a corpse's. Yes, a corpse of
a primitive man who had once upon a time gone out hunting with a stone
hammer over his shoulder to feed his family in the cave. Did he catch a
pheasant, a hare, a deer, or even a bear? No, he didn't catch anything,
because there were too many hunters, more hunters than the hunted. The
man threw himself on a rock and soaked his hands in a brook nearby. The
bluish water suddenly glowed under the declining sun and his hands turned
red. The water was bloody, he finally realized, from a bunch of entrails
of an animal which an unknown successful hunter had thrown away in the
Song abruptly grabbed a piece of soap at his weird association
and briskly washed his hands. From somewhere deep in him a hot lava of
anger was churning upward as he prepared to leave his office.
He was free with no empty lunch box to carry, but his
hungry stomach didn't help him climb the steep hill to his home. The hill
was like a trash pile with dirty shacks covering it up like mushrooms.
It was called Liberty Village in the southern district of Seoul; it was
named so, because refugees from North Korea assembled there. He turned
into a narrow alley where rationbox-roofs lining it touched his shoulders.
The ground was muddy with sewage water and reddish coal ash thrown out
of every sinkless kitchen in the alley. At the dead end was a door made
of brown cement sacks strung together by thin ropes of various colors.
He pulled a leather string attached to the door, and was greeted by his
mother's shrilly "let's go, let's go."
It was the voice of his now insane mother who retained
not a trace of her original soft voice. It was more like a witch's shriek.
He stepped into her dark room filled with the odor of every form of poverty.
He was looking down at his mother when he suddenly thought of a mummy he
saw at a museum when he was in high school. But this - his - mummy had
gray hair and was wrapped in rags. She was lying with her face to the wall
and shouted "let's go, let's go" at strangely regular intervals as if hiccupping.
He wondered how such a knife-edged shrill could come out of that mummy-like
He then went over to his room and sat down heavily
on the floor. Weariness and anger crushed upon him until it became virtually
a physical labor to restrain himself from breaking out loud in cries. Until
two months ago he always said, "Mother, I am home," whether she understood
him or not. But now no more of even that. All he did was just stare down
at her stoically.
Out of the dark corner of his room his wife came forward.
She wore slacks made of an old Army blanket with two knees sewed on with
patches of different colors, perhaps from some old clothes. She was enormous
with child. She stolidly passed by him and went into the kitchen, reminding
him of a sleepwalker.
He shrank back as if hit by an invisible hand. Beside
him was his five-year-old daughter looking up at him with her big round
eyes. Trying to smile, he merely grimaced.
"You know what? Uncle promised me to buy me a nylon skirt."
"And shoes, too."
"Then mama and I will go to the big department store
His mind was too occupied with her palid little face
to respond to her happy report. Her skirt was a piece cut out from his
old shirt and a string held it around her waist. She had on a pair of mismatching
socks too large for her feet which she held with rubber bands.
"Let's go, let's go," His mother's voice came again like
a curse. He had heard it for seven years, but still it was a stranger's
voice. He closed his eyes, desperately checking himself from breaking down
under this dark oppression.
He went out after supper to the top of the hill where
he found some solace sitting on a rock and looking down on the streets.
He gathered his knees in his arms and waited for the neon-signs to light
up in the dark. There came a whiskey advertisement blinking in green. As
the night deepened the rock began to cool off; only the spot he sat on
was warm enough. It didn't last long though. He stood and put his hands
in his pockets while turning on his heels to find the Dipper among billions
of stars outshining the colorful neon-signs millions of miles down. Then
he found the brilliant Polar Star near the Dipper. With his eyes he drew
a straight line between himself and the Polar Star and stretched the line
as far as his eyes could reach. On that far spot was his hometown. He could
even see the main road cutting through the town and the little rocks and
trees along it.
It was getting cool. He shivered and sneezed and decided
to go home. As he turned into his alley, he was struck by his mother's
"let's go, let's go." At night the eerie voice reached even the other end
of the alley. "Let's go, let's go." He stopped and stood there until the
next anguishing cry sent a shudder down his spine. Finally he moved toward
his home and her voice became clearer and louder.
She meant that they all must go back to their home in
the north. She meant that they must go back to the past to get out of the
present misery. Even before she became insane, she used to say that the
family should go back home which they had to abandon after the communists
occupied the northern half of Korea. She did not understand the invincibility
of the 38th parallel. He explained it a hundred times, all in vain.
"I don't understand. I just don't understand it. 38th
parallel? Have they built a wall reaching the heavens? Who is he that blocks
the way of the people who merely want to go back home?" was her answer.
"I want to die in my own home. This is not living. How
long can you endure this kind of misery?" she angrily asked.
His reply, "Mother, but we are free here in the south,"
however, meant little to her. He tried to explain the meaning of freedom
enumerating all imaginable examples, but eventually he found it impossible
to explain freedom to his mother whose fervent wish to go home was too
innocent to be explained away in any political discourse however down-to-earth
it might be. His mother, on the other hand, found it beyond her grasp to
understand her son who stubbornly refused to comply with her wish while
he was suffering from abject poverty and humiliation. She concluded that
he was not concerned at all with her desperate wish and came to resent
him with all earnesty.
Of course, his heart ached at his mother's passionate
nostalgia. She had led a life of considerable abundance, ease and grace
as the wife of a landlord in her hometown. Even if she insisted she did
not understand the arbitrary division of the country by foreign forces,
she knew that the hill overburdened with filthy shacks was not truly what
could be called Liberty Village.
"When my country was emancipated from Japan, I cried
aloud with joy. I even put on the crimson skirt I wore at my wedding and
danced around. But, look, what has happened since then. Is this what we
expected after liberation? I don't understand it and I don't like it. Whatever
went wrong and whoever did it, certainly this world is not right," she
used to say. After regaining the country only to lose one's own home was
really an enigma to her.
Then came the Korean War in June, 1950. When the nearby
district was engulfed in soaring flames after a bombing and thick smoke
girdled the Liberty Village, his mother exclaimed, "Look, my son, this
is the time to go home. Let's go, let's go. The wall is fallen and the
38th parallel is gone. Let's go." With this last remark she completely
lost her sanity. His mother now in this dark dirty room was no more his
mother. She didn't recognize any of the family members. She had lost memory
of everything and the only sign of her being alive was her persistent cry
of "let's go."
Through the tiny hole in the paper door came a ray of
brownish oil lamp light. Song opened the door to his mother's room. The
lamp flickered and under the dim light he could discern his daughter sound
asleep in a piece of Army blanket. She looked pale and lifeless like a
miniature porcelain angel. Beside her sat his wife with a pair of red velvet
shoes on her lap. Holding up the shoes on her right palm toward him, she
"Uncle bought these for her."
Her eyes shaded by her unusually long lashes were faintly
smiling. It seemed a hundred years since he saw her smile. As she herself
had long forgotten that she was once a beauty, so had he almost forgotten
his wife's smiling face. He took the shoes and looked them over slowly
"Have you been out for a walk?" asked his brother who
till then had been silently watching him.
"Uh-huh. When did you come home?"
"I have just come in." His brother hadn't even untied
"Brother!" At this sudden call, Song turned the shoes
over to his wife and looked at his brother.
"Let's have a real life. Everybody seems to be doing
fine except us. I don't think we deserve to live like this. We also can
have a big house as good as anybody else's. Then I will put a big nameplate
on the gate so that everybody yards away can read it." His brother talked
in this manner whenever he drank. He had been released from the Army for
two years and hadn't been able to get a job yet.
"And we can buy one of those imported American cars like
those rich guys. I am sick of them. When I get rich I will drive it all
day long just to show off and spite them all," he sounded more drunk as
he went on puffing a cigarette with such gusto that he seemed eagen to
clean off his accumulated resentment with the blue smoke.
"So, you drank again," Song said, ignoring his brother's
He did not like his brother behaving as he did. His brother
was a college junior when the Korean War broke out. He had worked through
his college years, but he didn't have any special skill or a powerful connection,
which was the first requisite for a job these days.
"Yes, I drank a little bit on my friends' insistence."
It was the same old answer which Song knew was not a lie.
"Isn't it time you stopped drinking so heavily?"
"Whenever I meet my friends, drinking naturally follows.""I
know, what I mean is restrain yourself from getting together with your
"I cannot do that."
"But you cannot forever get together and drink away your
time. Do you think you can accomplish anything by that?"
"Accomplish? Nope! We just feel so hopeless and desperate
that we gather and then somehow get to talk and drink."
"I know, but that is what I don't like."
"But, brother, isn't it a comfort to have such friends?
Even though they are a miserable bunch, I shudder to think how I could
have lived so far hadn't there been their companionship. All of them are
wounded somewhere on their bodies; as a matter of fact, one guy is one-armed
and another is legless. But, brother, they are all good. At least they
don't cheat others even though they talk big sometimes. Yes, they are my
friends, they went through the orgy of the battle-fields together."
His brother sighed deeply, exhaling a plume of smoke.
In the general silence he went on puffing while loosening his tie with
his left hand.
"Let's go, let's go."
His mother interrupted the silence from the darkest corner
of the room. His brother turned his head toward her and remained motionless
for a long time. Song fumbled in his pocket and found a dried piece of
cigarette with a tiny trademark "Blue Bird" on it. He held the short twisted
cigarette butt between his thumb and the first finger.
"Take this one, brother," his brother offered him a pack
of Lucky Strike. He merely glanced at the sleek shiny pack and turned to
light his own Blue Bird. When he lowered his head to the lamp, his hair
scorched and curled. His brother watched his pale worry-smitten face with
a slightly derisive and sardonic smile.
Song sat there looking at the tiny precarious flame while
his brother attentively watched the burnt cigarette butt in his finger
"Let's go." His mother's plaintive entreatment came darkly
as from a deep subterranean tomb.
"You don't like my smoking American cigarettes, brother?"
"Unbecoming to your condition," he answered without looking
"But, which one do you like better, American cigarettes
or the Blue Bird?"
"Well, of course, American cigarettes taste better. So
So, you, who cannot afford even two meals a day smoke
Lucky Strike simply because you like it better, is that it? He didn't say
this, but his brother knew.
"Yes, I chose Lucky Strike because it tastes better."
"Ha, is that so?"
"Brother, you don't understand me at all."
"You know I don't have money to buy expensive cigarettes.
My friends bought them for me. I know you don't approve of my getting drunk
and coming home in a cab. I also know that often you don't have even a
quarter to ride a bus and walk more than four miles to come home. But do
I have to refuse my friends' favor and walk home simply because you walk?
There is no reason why I should do that. My friends are a strange lot.
They buy whiskey, cigarettes, and even pay my taxi fare, but they never
give me money," he said twirling his Lucky Strike.
"It's already two years since you came out of the Army.
You must find something to do and soon."
"I know. I must find something. I have already made up
my mind to do something, anything for that matter, within this month."
"You have to get a job."
"A job? like yours? You work eight hours a day like a
slave and get paid hardly enough to pay your bus fare. Work like you to
make someone else rich?"
"Then, is there any other way?"
"Of course there is, if I gather up enough courage."
Song couldn't take his brother seriously. He merely looked
at him and felt his finger tips burn. He put his cigarette in the beer-can
"What do you mean?"
"At least as much courage as a crow's. You don't have
to be clever. A crow doesn't fear a scarecrow because he is not as clever
as a sparrow," when his brother said this, he again flickered that strange
"You are not planning anything unlawful by any chance?"
"No, nothing of that sort. I have just decided to discard
everything to make a decent living."
"Yes, I am going to discard from my mind my conscience,
my moral sense, my adherence to tradition, and even my obedience to laws."
His brother's eyes were shining.
"Are you going to... ?"
His brother didn't answer but looked straight into his
"If I had done that I could have made money, too."
"Done that? what, brother?"
"Throwing away from my mind my conscience, my moral obligations,
my love of tradition, and maybe even my legal obligation." Song's voice
came out sharply in spite of his effort to control his mounting anger,
and it momentarily subdued his brother.
"I respect you, brother, my brother who suffers so much
but endures so admirably. But you are too weak. You don't have courage.
Your conscience is too strong. Maybe, the weaker you are, the sharper the
thorn of your conscience becomes," his brother resumed.
"Thorn of conscience?"
"Yes, a thorn. Conscience is a thorn in your finger tip.
If you pull it out, you don't feel it. But for some reason or other you
keep it there and get pricked. Morality? That is just like a nylon panty,
you may just as well not wear it, for it is transparent. Tradition? Tradition
is like a ribbon on a girl's hair. If it is there, it is pretty, but you
don't miss it if it isn't there. Law? Law is only a scarecrow. It stands
there to scare the sparrows, but birds like crows are not afraid of it.
Rather, the crows perch on its head. But the poor scarecrow cannot do anything
about it. That's law."
His brother lit another Lucky Strike. "Let's go," his
mother shouted. She was asleep but her insistence didn't stop. Her wish
to go back home seemed to have assimilated into her organs and came out
like her breath.
Song leaned against the wall and kept his eyes on his
brother's impassioned face, which was the very image of despair. In the
shadowy corner his daughter was sleeping and his wife sat beside her, listening
to their discussion and playing with the little shoes in her hands. Song
bowed his head, and his brother inhaled deeply several times before he
started to speak.
"Brother, I understand your attitude toward life, that
is, to live honestly even in poverty. Of course, it is good and right to
live uprightly. But, the sacrifice several people in this family have to
pay is too great a price for keeping your conscience clean. They are hungry
and miserable. Even your decayed you, you don't have the guts to do something
about your decayed teeth that bother you so much. When you have decayed
teeth, you have to go to the dentist and have them pulled out. But you
just endure the pain with clenched teeth. I know you don't have money to
go to the dentist. No money, that is the problem. But that's not all. You've
got to get some money to take care of your teeth. You think that to endure
pain is to gain money. In other words, no spending is gaining. However,
brother, it is not gaining when you don't spend for what is absolutely
necessary to live like a human being."
He continued, "There are three groups of people in the
world. The first group is the one that makes money sheerly for its own
sake; they make more than they need. The second is the group that makes
barely enough money to buy things necessary to make a living. And the last
group is the one that makes less than it absolutely needs; therefore, this
group shrinks its expenses instead, just like fitting your feet to your
shoes. Brother, you belong to the last group. You may say that in order
to live an honest life, you cannot be but poor. That may be true. To live
honestly may be good, but what else does it do? To live honestly with a
spotless conscience, that is that, no more. With your immaculate conscience,
you will always have to suffer from your toothache, I am afraid. If, dear
brother, life were a little magic land which children look into through
those magic glasses in the market place, you can just see that much life
you want to see and pay a dime to the magician. But life is not the magic
land in the glass which you can see and stop when you want to. Does our
stomach stop growling when we don't have money? The trouble is you have
to live even if you don't like to or want to. So, in order to live you
must make money. And because you need money, you've go to get it. Why can't
we live in a broader and freer sphere, just up to the line of law? Many
people live even crossing the legal line back and forth. Why must we confine
ourselves within the narrow boundary of conscience, morality, etc.? What
is law, anyway? Isn't it a line we all as society members agreed to draw
to have a decent life?"
His brother abruptly held his head and threw his necktie
into a corner. Song didn't answer and looked down at his bare toes protruding
from his torn socks. He knew that nylon socks would last him at least six
months, but he couldn't cut away the expense from his monthly salary to
buy them. He always ended up with cotton socks that cost one sixth of the
"Let's go," his mother shrieked as she turned over.
"What you have said is a mere sophistry, illogical and
irrational," Song said. He slowly raised his eyes and saw the enormous
shadow of his wife on the opposite wall that looked like a battered old
bulletin board covered with various yellowed newspapers. The shadow of
his wife sitting hunched over beside the sleeping girl loomed like a monster
on a screen. He closed his eyes again, and into his dark vision came the
picture of his wife ten years ago.
She was standing on a stage in white jacket and dark
skirt, a lovely girl, singing a solo at her school's graduation concert.
When she finished he rushed backstage to congratulate her while the long
and enthusiastic applause was ringing in his ears. That night they walked
and talked and their future promised them eternal happiness.
He opened his eyes and saw her long silky lashes vividly
reminding him of her now faded beauty.
"Let's go," his mother's voice struck him.
"Irrational? Perhaps," his brother said weakly after
a long silence.
"According to your logic, rich people are all bad and
"No, I didn't evaluate their morality. Why is it bad
to live luxuriously? Who is bad and immoral anyway? There doesn't seem
to be a distinct line between good and bad, especially these days."
"But according to what you said, to be well-off you have
to discard your conscience, moral obligation, and so on."
"Not at all. You misunderstood me. To make it short,
it is like this. You can become rich and keep your conscience clean at
the same time, but unfortunately very few can do that. On the other hand,
if you only get rid of all those conventional virtues, you are sure to
make a good living."
"That is what I would call sophistry. That kind of philosophy
is based on a twisted mental state."
"Twisted mentality, maybe true. Mine is certainly twisted.
But it got twisted too late. It should have twisted before mother became
mad, before the Han River bridge was bombed out, before our only sister
was forced to become a Yankee prostitute, long before the government came
back to Seoul, and long long before I volunteered for the front line like
a fool," his brother spoke passionately like an orator. After a pause he
concluded in philosophical resignation, "a long, long time before those
things happened, our mentality should have twisted, preferably from birth."
Then he sank his head in his chest and sighed in a trembling
subdued sob. His wife was silently rubbing away with her fingers a few
tear drops she had shed. Song sat there unable to find a word to say.
"Life is not what you think it is. You don't even know
how a man should live," he said finally in a futile effort to console himself.
"You are right. I really don't know how a man should
live. But I know one thing clearly. In this world where everybody is howling
and tearing at one another, I know what we must do just to survive, ha
ha ha," his brother laughed hollowly with his eyes filled with tears.
"Let's go." Their mother again urged them to go back
home. Everybody turned his head toward her as if suddenly stricken by the
new meaning of that heartrending supplication. Song let out a sigh so heavy
that it almost blew out the lamp. The whole house seemed to be sinking
down. The night was quiet and deep. From the alley came the quick steps
of a pair of high heels. The footsteps came nearer and nearer and stopped
in front of their door. Their sister soon came into the room. Her fresh
and fine figure was in a black two-piece suit.
"You are quite late today," his brother said to her.
She ignored him and placed her pair of black high heels inside the room.
Then she threw her purse on the floor, took off her jacket and skirt, and
jumped into a blanket and buried her face under it. Song didn't even give
a glance at his sister; he was instead recalling a scene one afternoon
That day the streetcar he was riding stopped at the Ulchiro
intersection. Clinging to a handle after a long day, he was blankly looking
out of the window. At that moment he saw his sister Myung Sook with an
American soldier in a jeep which happened to stop beside the streetcar.
His face suddenly felt like in a fire. In the front seat beside the GI
sat Myung Sook wearing enormous dark glasses. As if he couldn't wait till
they arrived wherever they were going, the GI, with his left hand on the
wheel, put his right hand around her waist and whispered something into
her ear. She was nodding without turning to him. A taxi cab driver beyond
the jeep in the next lane smirked at the strange couple. People in the
streetcar joined in smirking and mocking at the sight. Two young men near
"For that sort of a girl, she prettied up herself pretty
"You can't see her face under those huge glasses."
"Those girls have good business, you know, they don't
even need any capital to start with."
"Will there be any guy mad enough to marry that sort,
I mean someday?"
"Are you kidding?"
Mr. Song let go the handle and went to the door in the
middle of the car and faced away from the scene. His feeling was not exactly
sadness; he felt as if a lump of hot charcoal was blocking his throat.
He felt his nose fill with hot vapor and his eyes with hot water. He clenched
his teeth fiercely. The signal changed and as the car started to move,
he leaned against the door and closed his eyes. From that day on he hadn't
spoken even so much as one word to her. She herself didn't bother to speak
to him either.
"Let's go to bed," his brother suggested. Song blew out
the lamp, went to his room and lay down on the floor. His body felt like
a soaked cotton ball heavily sinking, but he was not sleepy. The night
was eerily quiet and time itself seemed to have stopped. His wife was asleep
and moaned from time to time. He closed his eyes and felt the whole world
drifting away from him.
His mother's "Let's go" came loud and eerie. He opened
his eyes and stared at the invisible ceiling. A faint moon light shining
through a tiny hole drew a thin blue line across his daughter's body. He
turned to the wall. "Let's go," his mother's voice came feebly to his ears.
Myung Sook, on the other hand, opened her eyes and put
her hand forward and tenderly held her mother's hand. It was a scrawny
hand of skin and bones, damp and sticky. She turned over to her mother
and gathered the unfeeling hand in her two hands.
"Let's go," the mother shouted again, completely ignorant
of her daughter's affectionate grasp.
"Mama," Myung Sook called her.
"Let's go," was the only blunt answer.
"Mama," Myung Sook started to sob, drawing her mother's
hand to her face. "Mama, mama," she continued sobbing bitterly.
"Let's go," the mother snatched her hand away from her
daughter and turned over to the wall. Myung Sook covered herself with her
blanket and cried in a muffled sob.
In the other room the little girl called, "Mommie," which
Song heard in his half sleep.
"Mommie," she called again.
"Oh, dear girl, your mommie is right here," his wife
said and gathered her in her arms.
"I want to go to the bathroom."
His wife sat up and took the girl to the chamber pot,
and said, "Uncle brought you very pretty shoes. Want to see them?" Then
she brought the shoes from under the girl's pillow and showed them to her.
"Mommie, are they really mine?"
"Of course, they are yours."
"Are they very pretty?"
"Yes, they are. They are beautiful red velvet shoes."
"Oh, how wonderful," the girl hugged them close to her
"Now, go back to bed."
"May I put them on tomorrow, mommie?"
"Sure, my dear."
The girl crawled back into her blanket, then, asked again,
"May I really wear them tomorrow?" as if she couldn't believe her mother.
All were in a sleep. The thin ray of moonlight moved
to Song. The little girl pushed her blanket aside and turned over on her
stomach. She put her tiny hands beneath her pillow and touched tenderly
her new shoes. Assured that they were still there, she went back to sleep.
After a while she woke again and quietly drew the shoes to her bosom. She
caressed them and put them on her lap. She held the shoes up in the moon
light and looked at the white rubber soles and then put the soles together
to see if they were matching in size. Then she put her feet forward and
put them on. "Let's go," her grandmother's piercing shriek frightened her.
She took off her shoes and put them carefully under her pillow and crawled
back into her small share of blanket.
To anyone that hadn't eaten lunch, the hour between two
and three was the hardest to get over. Song laid his pen on his desk thinking
that he would have one more cup of the free barley tea which the office
provided for its employees. He had already drunk two cups brought to him
by the office boy, and this time he didn't want to ask him again. So, he
took the empty cup to the stove on which a pot of barley tea was invitingly
steaming. He brought the brimming cup back to his desk. When he was taking
a cautious first sip holding the cup in both hands, the office boy said,
"Mr. Song, telephone call for you."
He put down the cup and went to his chief's desk on which
the telephone was placed.
"Yes, I am Chul Ho Song. Police station? Yes, I am. Who?
Yong Ho Song? Yes, he is my brother. What? I see, I see. Did my brother?
Are you serious? All right, I will be there right away." He put the receiver
back and stood there staring at the telephone unbelievingly. The whole
office turned its eyes to him.
"What's the matter? A traffic accident?" asked his chief.
"No, I don't know. May I be excused?" He ran out of the
office ignoring curious and worried glances of his office mates.
It was not the first time he had to go to a police station.
Whenever his sister was being investigated he had to go there to prove
her identity. At such times he would hang his head in front of the investigator
and walk out with her as soon as the examination was over. He wouldn't
talk with her and she didn't seem to mind his indifference. Even though
he cried in his heart for his only sister, he hated and resented her for
having become the most despised of all fallen women. He would walk straight
back to his office and she would simply disappear in the crowd without
a word to him.
But this time it was about his brother. His brother's
impassioned talk a few nights ago flashed through his mind when he stepped
into the South Gate Police Station. He didn't want to believe that his
brother had done anything he had implied that night.
When he heard the policeman's charge against his brother,
he stared at the man across the desk unable to comprehend the brief statement.
His face turned paler and more expressionless as he sat there staring.
The policeman said that an employee of a downtown company was carrying
a sack of cash from a bank for the company pay day. While the man was climbing
into the company jeep, two men with hats down to their eyes and sun-glasses
on swiftly climbed after him into the car.
The driver drove the car as ordered to Wooidong and stopped
at an isolated densely wooded spot. The two robbers ordered the captives
to get out of the car threatening to kill them if they turned around. Then
they drove back to the city at the fullest speed. The car, however, was
caught not far from Wooidong, with only one man in it.
When the police officer asked him whether he wanted to
see his brother, he was still in a daze. The door to the detectives' room
opened and his brother appeared.
Young Ho, his brother, handcuffed, slowly moved to the
desk and nodded to Song, whose face twitched spasmodically; only his eyes
focused fiercely on his brother's face.
"Brother, I am sorry. I failed at the line of humanity.
I crossed the legal line quite easily. I should have shot them." His brother
smiled peacefully. Song watched his brother's face as if he were trying
to drive his eyes into his brother's.
"Please, go back home," his brother said in a consoling
voice. The detective ordered a policeman to take him back to the investigation
room. His brother meekly followed the officer and stepped a few paces forward
when he turned around to say,
"Brother, please take the little girl downtown for once
because I promised her so."
When he heard the door slam, Song felt the whole world
around him was a dark void engulfing him completely.
"From the beginning he didn't seem to have any intention
to shoot," the detective said to Song.
"Do you know by any chance the man who cooperated with
Song was speechless.
"He insists that he did it all by himself, but we have
witnesses to contradict him," said the detective, finally to himself.
Without knowing where to go, Song started walking. After
a while he found himself on the sloping way up the hill to his home.
"Let's go." He stopped there struck by the insane cry.
He threw back his face and streams of tears ran down his cheeks.
"Let's go, let's go. Where in the world does she want
to go? Where in hell... " He wanted to shout back to his mother. Then he
noticed a handful of small children who had stopped their game and were
wathching watched him curiously and fearfully.
"Where have you been all day?" His sister asked him in
an annoyed voice when he stumbled into to his home. She was rearranging
her dress boxes; in his room he found a pile of old clothes which his daughter
was looking at with bright admiration as if they were some precious gowns.
"You'd better hurry to the hospital," Myung Sook said.
"Your wife is there. She is having serious troubles in
He felt dizzy. His wife, he was told, began labor around
noon, but several hours passed with no progress, so they took her to the
hospital where she was put in the ward of critical cases. His sister had
frantically called him at his office, where, of course, he was not.
"By now she way have had the baby or else... ," his sister
said while picking some clean towels out of a box. He knew that she was
Song suddenly felt his energy drain out and at the same
time his head became clear and calm. He felt just as he once did the day
when he recovered from malaria-his body weak but his head clear. "What's
the hurry?" he said to himself as he always did whenever he was assigned
to a big piece of work in his office. He lit a cigarette as he always did,
too, when he started on a new assignment. He went to the door when his
"Where are you going?"
"To the hospital."
"Why, you don't even know which hospital. It's Dr. Kim's
Clinic on Choongmuro Street."
He came out to the yard.
"Wan't take any money with you?"
He came back into the room and stood there helplessly.
His sister snatched her purse off the wall and gave him a bundle of paper
money. She turned around and continued her preparation of diapers.
"Let's go," his mother broke in.
"Daddy, are you going to the hospital? Did mommie get
a new baby?"
He put the money in his pocket and went to the door almost
driven by another sharp cry from his mother. When he arrived at the clinic,
his wife was already dead.
"Is she?" He said to the nurse blankly as if answering
to a common daily question. He didn't even ask where her body was.
He moved toward the hospital door through the wide and
clean corridor. He felt that a colossal job had been completed and he had
nothing to do anymore. He felt that everything had just started and he
had a million things on his hand. He felt that now he didn't have any need
to hasten. He stood in front of the ghastly white hospital door, trying
for a long time to decide where to go.
Then he came into the main street and walked slowly along
the streetcar rails. After infinite wandering he found himself heading
toward his office. It was past six o'clock and he did not have to go there.
He crossed the street and suddenly found himself at the gate of the South
Gate Police Station. He turned around and walked away. He walked and wandered
aimlessly and indefinitely. He was passing by the South Gate in the direction
of his home, and yet he didn't mean to go home. He looked into the show
windows of a stationer's, a radio shop, a photo studio, and numerous other
windows. Then at last he saw a huge sign "Dentist" in red paint on a white
rectangular board and stopped. All his teeth instantly began to pulse painfully.
His hand touched the money in his pocket. He started up the staircase to
the dentist's office.He was put in a dentist's chair and lay there with
his mouth wide open. He was sleepy and languid while the doctor worked
on his teeth.
"Wasn't it painful? The root was crooked," said the doctor,
showing him an ugly tooth decayed inside. Song shook his head to the dentist's
sympathetic question because he didn't feel any pain.
"Well, we are through. Take the cotton off in about thirty
minutes. The scar will bleed quite a bit in the meantime," said the dentist.
"Won't you pull the other tooth out, too? Please do,"
said Mr. Song.
"No, we can't do that. You will bleed too much."
"That's all right."
"No, that is not all right. We will extract the other
one in a few days."
"Please, doctor. I want to get rid of all the rotten
"No, I am sorry. We have to take care of them gradually
one by one."
"I cannot wait. It hurts too badly."
"My answer is still no. If you lose too much blood, you
will get into trouble."
Song left the dentist's office and resumed his wandering.
His mouth felt numb. He rubbed his cheek. Then he found another dentist's
"No, I am afraid I cannot extract your tooth today,"
the new dentist said the same thing.
But Song insisted doggedly and succeeded in persuading
the new dentist. When he left the clinic he had two cotton balls in his
mouth on each of the two bleeding spots. He had to spit a mouthful of blood
every once in a while.
When he passed by the South Gate and came near the Seoul
Railway Station, he felt a flash of chill going through his spine, and
his head felt heavy and numb. At that instant all the street lights lit
up. Then everything blurred into an abstract dark before his eyes. He closed
his eyes and opened them realized, but it was darker than before the lights
came on. He remembered that he was having this blackout spell because he
hadn't eaten anything all day long. He suddenly felt devastatingly hungry.
He went to a nearby electric pole and spat a mouthful of dense blood. An
icy chill shot through his body and his legs became shaky.
He staggered into a restaurant and called, "one rice
in beef soup," to a waitress. Then he fell upon the table burying his face
in his arms. His mouth began to fill up, and he rushed out of the restaurant
to spit this time an amazing volume of blood. The two scars throbbed and
the pain was piercing. To correspond to the throbbing gums, his head began
to ache. He decided to go home and rest. He called a taxi.
"Where are we going?"
The cab driver waited for other cars to pass along to
make a turn. When he finally managed to turn around, Song abruptly changed
his destination and ordered, "No, let's go to Dr. Kim's Clinic on Choongmuro
Remembrance of his wife's death flashed back to him.
The driver made another turn in the opposite direction and the assistant
driver glanced back at him. Song was slumped in the back seat, his face
upward. When the car came in the vicinity of the hospital, he shouted,
"No, take me to the South Gate Police Station." There was no need to see
his dead wife, and his brother was still alive. The car sped on.
"We are in front of the police station," said the driver.
Song opened his eyes and sat up, then he slumped back
"Let's go again."
"Sir, this is the police station."
"He must be drunk," said the driver angrily.
"He certainly looks drunk," said his assistant.
"Of all people in the world we got a man like a stray
bullet. He doesn't know where he wants to go," the driver mumbled as he
started the car.
In his gradually diminishing consciousness, Song was
thinking: "I have too many things to do-as a son, a husband, a father,
a brother, and as a clerk of an accountant! Yes, driver, you are right,
I am a stray bullet among God's other more accurate shots. I really don't
know where my place is. But I have to go somewhere, anywhere."
Song's mind was sinking rapidly into a fathomless lethargy.
His body collapsed in the soft cushion seat and his face fell into his
"Where do you want to go?" the assistant asked again.
But there was no answer from the back seat. As an intersection
signal bell sent out its nervous clanging, the long parade of cars began
to move. The taxi being in the parade moved along with others but to no
destination. Nobody even noticed Song's white shirt slowly soaking in blood.
Translated by Choi jin-young.